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Ashland film festival announces slate of honorees

Actor David Oyelowo — who made his directing debut with the “The Water Man,” a feature made in 2019 in Oregon — will receive the Rogue Award at this year’s Ashland Independent Film Festival.

It’s one of several AIFF honors announced recently, in preparation for the festival — which has decided on a “double feature” schedule this year because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Oyelowo, whose notable roles include such projects as “Selma” and the “Les Miserables” miniseries, made “The Water Man” in and around Portland. The film made its world premiere at 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, and is now scheduled to make its Pacific Northwest premiere at the annual Ashland festival.

The Rogue Award is presented annually to “an accomplished mid-career artist,” according to a press announcement. According to the Toronto International Film Festival program, “The Water Man,” whose executive producers include Oprah Winfrey, tells a story that “recalls the beloved family-friendly films of the 1980s.”

Lonnie Chavis (”This Is Us”) stars as Gunner, a sensitive child with artistic aspirations, a vision supported by his gravely ill mother (Rosario Dawson). Oyelowo also stars in the film, as Gunner’s father, whose emotional connection with his son is strained.

In the midst of this difficult family situation, Gunner becomes obsessed with the legend of The Water Man, a supposed immortal with magical, curative powers. Once Gunner decides to head off in search of the Water Man, the adventure begins.

Oyelowo has said that his own love of fantasy films about young people, including “E.T.” and the Oregon-filmed adventure, “The Goonies,” was an influence on why he was drawn to “The Water Man.”

“The Water Man” will open AIFF’s 2021 event, and Oyelowo is scheduled to speak with critic Warren Etheredge about the film and his work.

According to the festival press information, the fact that “The Water Man” filmed in Oregon forests, which were dramatically impacted by 2020 wildfires, “connects the film to the festival’s central theme this year of ‘Rising From the Ashes.’”

As with other film festivals that have had to adapt to the COVID era, the Ashland event will present something different, with what it’s calling a “Double Feature” festival. The event will run online from April 15-29, and outdoors in Ashland and Medford from June 24-28.

The Ashland festival has also announced other winners of its special awards. The 2021 honorees include producer Christine Vachon, who will receive the Pride Award, which is given to significant people in LGBTQ+ filmmaking. Among the films Vachon has produced is director Todd Haynes’ “Poison.” The two are scheduled to revisit the making of that film in an April festival discussion, which will be moderated by critic B. Ruby Rich, who received the 2019 Pride Award.

The James Blue Award, presented to filmmakers whose work explores social justice and political issues, will go to Bruno Santamaria, a Mexican filmmaker whose films include “Things We Dare Not Do.”

The festival will include independent features and short films, virtual discussions and other events reflecting the theme of “Rising From the Ashes,” which recognizes how Southern Oregon is trying to recover following the 2020 summer wildfires. The entire festival schedule will be announced on March 24. For more information, go to ashlandfilm.org.

David Oyelowo arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)